Tag Archives: Women in STEM

#GenderedToys are awful

11 Feb

Okay. I know it has been a REALLY long time since my last post. It’s not because I have been lazy – in the past few months I have spent much of my energy founding Curiosity Collider, a non-profit focus on innovative and interdisciplinary ways to experience science. Plus, at some point my personal life needs to take priority 😀 Now that things are moving along quite nicely, maybe I will start writing a little more…

Anyways, today I want to share this video about gendered toys, which I discussed a few times previously. I love this segment from an Australian show called The Weekly with Charlie Pickering (I think it is very similar to the Daily Show in US). Here it is:

*Sigh* By the way, I do have a box of LEGO Research Institute which I keep in a box and don’t let anyone touch…


Women in STEM – 2014 in Review

31 Dec

What are the highs and lows for women in STEM this year?

The Field Prize: Maryam Mirzakhani became the first female winner for the prestigious Field Medal in mathematics. A bitter sweet moment, to tell the truth, because for whatever reason no other woman has received the prize since its inception in 1936. I couldn’t help but ask why, and wonder how many other outstanding women have been overlooked when it comes to prestigious awards in STEM?

Freeze your eggs now: This is the year we learnt that instead of providing a supportive work environment for childbearing employees, tech companies like Facebook and Apple decided to offer them the “benefit” to freeze their eggs. To whose benefit is this, really? Because otherwise women cannot commit to their work? So that the company can hire or promote those who don’t have children until later in their lives? Will women who decide to freeze their eggs now still keep their jobs later on if they do on on to have children? And who is going to take the responsibility if the frozen eggs lose their ability to be fertilized?

And no surprise that Microsoft CEO’s great advice to women is “Don’t Ask For A Raise, Trust Karma.”


#GamerGate: We saw the Gamergate controversy – it was a big mess. Was it really about Ethics In Games Journalism? Then how did it spiral into online harassment and threats of physical harm toward mostly women in the gaming industry, including Anita Sarkeesian who was interviewed in the YouTube video below? It got so bad that even FBI is apparently investigating this.

Let’s talk about Women in STEM: This is the year that we learnt talking about being a woman in STEM could be more difficult than you think, as experienced by these three female MIT computer scientists. Did they brought it on to themselves? Would things have been different if they avoided the gender topic? (Probably not…) You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

The silver lining? As mentioned by Victoria,

And don’t worry, there is a silver lining: if you go to visit the AMA now that it’s over, most of the more intrusive jabs and demands have been downvoted into oblivion, leaving many questions that did focus on science, tech, academia, and what it’s like to be a woman in these fields—such as this redditor who asked whether or not the three women are treated differently than their male computer scientist colleages, for example.

#ShirtStorm: We watched the Rosetta mission and the landing of the Philae probe on a comet becoming the top science story of 2014. Only this celebration was dampened by an absolutely inappropriate shirt born by one of the Rosetta scientists, Dr. Matt Taylor, during the media brief.

Perhaps not intentional, and an apology did follow. But it makes you wonder how nobody pointed it out to him, and how subtle these situations could be.

Or perhaps the story really is this…

Nobody deserves to be treated this way.

Opting out: This year, for the first time, a well-educated man said to me, “What’s the problem with having only 15-20% of women in physics? They probably just chose not to go into physics and astronomy.” and then went on to argue how it is so unfair to men that there are more women becoming medical doctors now.


  1. The increase of female students in medical schools (the ratio is about 55 to 45, female to male now) just happened in the past decade. Not to mention, males are not exactly “under-represented” in the medical field – unlike the 20 to 80 female to male ratio we see in physics and astronomy (probably worse in computer science).
  2. Males still dominate the higher up, senior positions like department heads.

So then, why do we need more women in STEM? It is a diversity issue. It is an ethical issue. It is about keeping the best and the brightest in STEM, regardless of their gender.

Diversity in Tech - Information is Beautiful

Diversity in Tech – Information is Beautiful (http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/diversity-in-tech/)

Well, he is not the only one who thinks so. Oh no. Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci wrote to the New York Times Sunday Reviews about their recent published research paper, Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape (Ceci, Ginther, Kahn, and Williams). In Academic Science Isn’t Sexist, they said,

Many of the common, negative depictions of the plight of academic women are based on experiences of older women and data from before the 2000s, and often before the 1990s. That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies. As we found, when the evidence of mistreatment goes beyond the anecdotal, it is limited to a small number of comparisons of men and women involving a single academic rank in a given field on a specific outcome.

Why then, do we not see more women in some STEM fields? In their research paper, they said, sexism isn’t the problem – women are simply choosing to opt out! It is their own choice!

The cause of this is not that women applicants are not being hired, but rather that they are choosing to opt out of academic science.

I wrote a 4-part series on how gender bias in science is studied. While I agree that many of the studies relied on anecdotal data, we do have experimental data demonstrating that junior scientists with female names are less likely to be hired into intro science careers. Some additional digging shows that the research work by the team could be questionable:

Ceci and colleagues are simply looking at the outcomes of women’s STEM careers in comparison to men’s, without adequately measuring how these outcomes arise, and how they’re connected to broader socio-economic patterns in society.

I still hear about teachers who told females students that they can never be physicists (one of my coop students told me that – and she is an Honours physics student now, thank goodness, because she is awesome). I still hear from friends who said that there is no way they will be able to have children right now, given the structure of their tech companies.

It Is not a choice If they don’t see the options.

Not just a woman’s problem: My friend Eric Mills, a physicist and the illustrator for Cartoon Physics, talked about gender issues in his comic strip, Witnessed – covering the sexism he witnessed himself (I highly recommend the comic strip). For example,


By Eric Mills in Witnessed (http://cartoonphysics.net/comics/18/).

Why did he touch on this subject? He said,

Well, because the burden of speaking out about sexism in science and society should not fall only to women. We all need to do our part for a more equal world. And because I still meet men who say they do not see sexism in science, and hence do not see why we should be doing anything about it. To those men, I suggest that perhaps you are simply not looking.

More and more, we see discussions about women in science not just by women anymore. We see these discussions becoming about people in science, about how we should treat each other – and really, that is what this is all about. I love where we are going.

We can do more: This is also the year that we saw a growing number of initiatives to support women in the technology industry. For example, Ladies Learning Codes hosts workshops to introduce website development, coding, even Arduino and electronics to women and youth. There are now organizations such as Women in Communications and Technology, that supports women with careers in communications, digital media, and technology across Canada. In UK, the Athena SWAN Equality Charter aims to work with institutions to address gender issues in science. In fact, the process of becoming a charter member is an opportunity to create a better work environment:

Although I was aware of many issues, the Athena Swan process has also been a bit of an eye opener, and made us all think. Does this meeting really need to be after work? Are we actively pushing our women forwards for senior roles? Do we ensure a good mix of invited key-note speakers to the Institute? We are addressing these areas. And importantly, with the help of our new maternity mentors, we are learning how to deal with the “bump that dare not speak its name”; this is the awkward situation whereby no one knows quite what to say about a pregnancy, for fear of doing the wrong thing.

–  in How to create a better future for women in science by Professor Tom Solomon is director of the Institute of Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool, and professor of neurology at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust.

We also heard about the recent announcement that Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian physicist and the former spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment (yes, the one that discovered the Higgs Boson), will lead CERN, where the world’s largest particle collider resides.

More Women in Science illustrations, please: And just the other day I was thinking about why we don’t have more animations or graphics representing women in STEM (the “Einstein” representation of physicists just don’t work for me anymore). Thanks to Katie McKissick who contributes to the blog Symbiartic, I was introduced to the wonderful illustrations by Rachel Ignotofsky. (Check out Katie’s blog post Women in Science Illustrations for an interview of Rachel). Now, can we have more of these?!

Even Google Doodle is paying some attention to diversity. This year, many female scientists are featured, including Ada Lovelace, Rachel Carson, and Grace Hopper.

2015: There will continue to be ups and downs for women in science in the coming year. But with each step and each discussion, we are engaging more in thinking about women in STEM – or perhaps, about making STEM a better environment for every single one of us.

Did I miss anything? If I did, please feel free to leave a comment below!

Updated at 8:57am on Dec 31: I totally missed May-Britt Moser receiving the Nobel Prize! And a few other achievements that deserve to be celebrated, highlighted by discov-her: A look back at the inspiring achievements by women scientists in 2014.

Updated 11am on January 2: We also lost a few great scientists in 2014. See Gone in 2014: Remembering 10 Notable Women in Science by Maia Weinstock.

Updated 9:30am on January 7: Fast Company put together the 9 Giant Leaps For Women In Science and Technology In 2014. Worth reading.

The bitter sweet “first woman to…”

18 Aug

First female winner for Fields maths medal – BBC

Nothing But Gold: First Woman Wins Math’s Nobel Prize – Forbes

Fields Medal mathematics prize won by woman for first time in its history – The Guardian

Math’s Highest Honor Is Given To A Woman For The First Time – NPR

Finally, a woman wins the Fields Medal – Vox


Every time I see headlines like these, I have a whole bag of mixed feelings. On one hand, this is quite an achievement to be celebrated. The Fields Medal is a big deal. Not to mention Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal since it was first awarded in 1936, is now a role model for those (particularly women) who are interested in studying mathematics.


Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal. Image credit: Wikipedia under public domain

As pointed out by Anushay Hossain in her article in Forbes:

Imagine the message that is sent to women and girls with Mirzakhani being awarded such a prestigious prize. The image of her on the stage receiving her honor from President Park Geun-Hye, the female head of state of South Korea, herself a pioneer for women, reminds us that we are breaking barriers across the board, around the world.

Maryam Mirzakhani shows us not only that there needs to be more women and girls in the academic disciplines of STEM, but that also we should not fear to go where not many women went before us.

Her win gives women and girls the message that not only can we enter these fields, but we can succeed and thrive in them, too, breaking century-old assumptions that women are naturally weak in math and sciences when in reality our accomplishments can make history.

And mentioned by Sir Tim Gowers, a Fields medallist and mathematician at Cambridge University, in his interview with the Guardian:

I am thrilled that this day has finally come…Although women have contributed to mathematics at the highest level for a long time, this fact has not been visible to the general public. I hope that the existence of a female Fields medallist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.

On the other hand, the headlines made me sad because they raised more questions in my head. Are we still surprised that women can achieve greatness in science? Or, are we finally realizing how women have been overlooked when it comes to scientific achievements? When will we stop having headlines like these?

In the coverage by BBC news,

Prof Sir John Ball, another British mathematician and a former president of the IMU, agreed that Prof Mirzakhani’s win was “fantastically important”. Speaking to BBC News from the congress in Seoul, South Korea, he said that a female winner was overdue and that Prof Mirzakhani is one of many brilliant women mathematicians.

So, who are these “many brilliant women mathematicians?” How “overdue” are we? Who else should be recognized?

Quoted by the Guardian during her talk to the American Mathematical Society last year, Maryam pointed it out herself that the situation is far from ideal,

The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up. And balancing career and family remains a big challenge. It makes most women face difficult decisions which usually compromise their work

When the news came out, a friend of mine jokingly said, “Girls can do math!!” While it was meant to be a joke, it reflects the situation we are in. That time and time again we still need to “prove” that we can make it in STEM, particularly in male-dominated fields such as mathematics or physics.

When will a woman receiving her well-deserved recognition in STEM become normality?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner? Image source: Wikipedia under public domain.


Postscript (September 7, 2014): I didn’t realize it at the time of writing this post, but what I wrote above was actually pretty much about the ‘The Finkbeiner Test’ – a set of “rules” (test) to follow when profiling female scientists. And if you are wondering why this matters, check out this project Catherine (aka @genegeek) gave to the high school students who are part of the Vancouver Science World Future Science Leaders Program – write about female scientists following the Finkbeiner Test, or write about male scientist while breaking all the rules in the test, and then see what happens. You would be surprised.

A conversation about parenting, gender, and women and men in STEM

8 Apr

Recently this tweet by Terry McGlynn caught my eye:

From here, we started a conversation about work place policy for women:

Conversations like this usually get me down the rabbit hole of thinking about women & careers. I started to remember a feature by CBC Doc Zone, The Motherload (free online access for Canadian viewers).

Perhaps it’s because it was all supposed to have changed by now. Dads were supposed to carry more of the load. Motherhood was not supposed to become so idealized. Employers were supposed to be more flexible. Women were supposed to climb higher up the ladder, but feel less guilty. Society was supposed to live up to the promises our mothers made.  From single moms to CEOs – a generation of burnt-out, disillusioned moms are waking up and smelling the coffee. Forget having it all – today’s working moms are doing it all. Call it “The Motherload”.

This is hardly a surprise. Assuming that the amount of parenting work remains the same – with women taking on professional careers and spending more time focusing on work, the void must be filled somehow (by men, considering our social structure is not there yet). But, according to the documentary, only 26% of the Canadian fathers take *some* parental leave, vs 88% of the mothers. (Actually, Terry is part of the 26%)

But why is that?

And Paul Carini chimed in:

This is complicated, and there is no simple fix:

Terry talks about this more extensively on his blog post, On gender, parenting and academic careers. A very good blog post, please take some time to read it.

Going further down in the rabbit hole, perhaps I should support this with some data (and also because Pew Research Centre just published the data today and I can’t wait to include this in my post). According to the Pew Research Centre Report: After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers, more than 70% of the Americans are supportive of working mothers, yet this support certainly does not fit well with results from another survey done in 2013:

Some 51% of respondents said that children are better off if their mother is at home, while 34% said they are just as well off with a working mother. And, in a separate question, they were asked about fathers and their children. Only 8% of all adults said that children are better off if their father is home and doesn’t hold a job, while 76% said children are just as well off if their father works.

(Another Pew Research Centre survey published last year also found that “women are much more likely than men to report having had a significant career interruption related to family caregiving.”)

Also, if we look at stay-at-home moms with a college degree, 88% of them have working husbands. This is the group that likely have a better chance of finding a job, and probably with less financial burden, yet why their husbands are the working ones, but not they, is curious (get paid less? cannot find jobs? social pressure to stay at home and care for kids? truly want to stay at home? probably worthy another analysis?). Reading the report, it is not difficult to see how complicated the issue is when you consider marital status, income level, education level, etc etc (hence, more than a gender issue…).

So now the question – how can we tackle this issue?

Agreed. And I think conversations including both genders are very important.

(I thank him for the twitter conversation and said that this had been a great conversation)

Now about having conversations re: women & careers and women in STEM. My personal experience chatting with some male colleagues and friends is that because discussions on these topics usually end up very heated (their impressions are that pretty much anything they said could be considered against women’s rights, or that they don’t understand the issues because they are not women), they would rather avoid conversations about any gender-related issue all together. And, many of these conversations happen in female-dominant meetings, where males are the minority. This could be very uncomfortable for male participants. At one of such meetings that I happened to be at, one presenter made a wiener joke – and I don’t even want to imagine how uncomfortable the two male students in attendance felt (Funny how that we are trying to increase the number of women in STEM, yet we created another minority in the discussion of women in STEM).

This is a huge problem for two reasons. 1. There is no way to know how to better change policy if we only have half of the opinions in the room. 2. Many of those in decision-making roles are still male, and without some buy-in and participation from them, gender-related discussions often reflect to actual changes very, very slowly.

How can we change this? I think more people are aware of the lack of males in discussions regarding women in STEM. For example, in the Women Poised for Discovery and Innovation: Resolving the Remaining Hurdles session (see my Storify of the session) during American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, less than 5% of the session attendees are male, and people started to tweet about it right away. But, perhaps there is more we can do about this. How can we frame this so that it is more than a women’s issue, but something that everyone should participate in the discussion for? Even men in STEM have mothers, daughters, other colleagues they can relate to? What do our male colleagues think of these issues and are they aware these issues could bring instability into the academic environments as a whole? After all, a healthy academic environment must be good for everyone?

Let’s start the conversation.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com (Piled Higher and Diapers on Jan 11, 2010)

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com (Piled Higher and Diapers on Jan 11, 2010)


How is gender bias in science studied? IV. The future

10 Dec

This is part 4 and the final part of my series on how gender bias in science is studied. In the past few weeks, I summarized how gender bias in science has been studied: through surveys and interviews (Part 1), through existing data (Part 2), and through experimentation (Part 3). What we have learned is that there is evidence to support gender bias in science, most objectively through experimentation. Now the tough question – what do we do now? And I certainly hope that it doesn’t involve turning the physics department pink.

Here are a few things I could think of:

1. First, let’s start by changing the process of job and scholarship application review. Bias during reviews of job/scholarship applications and interviews is nothing new, and definitely not limited to gender and science. A study from 1997 showed that blind auditioning of musicians for symphony orchestras resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of women advancing into the next round, as well as being selected as a winner in the end. Additional research supports the use of anonymous job application procedures to ensure that the job application review process is less biased against women. These provide established cases for modifying the current process of hiring and award evaluation in research and academia. While it might be difficult to introduce an anonymous/blinded process at the faculty-hiring level (it is not difficult to guess who the researcher is given one’s work experience and publication record), it is very doable at the early career level. I think because the potential implication can be very significant, this should be implemented as soon as possible, with experimental conditions set up so that we can actually see if anonymous application processes can actually improve the hiring of women into positions in science, as suggested by my friend Artem.

On top of this, I agree with the suggestion by the Moss-Racusina et al paper reviewed previously, that the policy for hiring should be specific and the process should be transparent.

2. We have discussed the role of implicit bias in my previous postCan we actually reduce or eliminate implicit bias? Researchers in the US found that in the case of race, implicit bias is malleable. In an industrial setting, there are firms that provide strategies to address work place bias. Whether or not such a strategy is effective should be further evaluated, as noted by Bendick and Nune, but it is worth considering. It looks like the European Research Council will be introducing unconscious bias training for award selection panels; I am hoping that this will set itself as a good example for future academic hiring and award evaluation.

3. There needs to be some major structural changes with regards to how academic research and tenureship appointment works. For the past hundreds of years, it has been assumed that academic careers are taken up by men who do not need to make time for their families, and who are comfortable with leaving their families behind to advance their careers. This is unfair for both men and women, and creates a hostile environment toward women and pregnancy.  And believe me, students are already thinking about the bad rep of an academic career when they are in undergrad. Just check out this question by a student during UBC Science’s 50th Anniversary Lecture – Science: The Gender Dimension.

Now, as noted by Eileen Pollack in her New York Times article Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? during her conversation with Meg Urry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale, she said:

No one is claiming that juggling a career in physics while raising children is easy. But having a family while establishing a career as a doctor or a lawyer isn’t exactly easy either, and that doesn’t prevent women from pursuing those callings.

The chance is that, it is more than providing child care services or parental leave, but also about whether people in academia welcome such practice. We have had a bad rep for long enough – changes in the system could provide a positive view of academic careers as a whole for female students who are just starting their academic career.

4. We should continue to encourage female students to consider STEM careers in their future. The reality is that if a girl does not take high school level science courses (physics, chemistry, biology), she will not fulfill the requirement for taking upper-level first year university science courses – this becomes a barrier for the girl to enter a physical science degree program. According to the US Department of Education, by grade 8 you can see the level of interest in science diverging between boys and girls – this means that we need to start early in order to sustain girls’ interest in science. There were many ideas about how this should happen, but trying to figure out which one works is a delicate matter – many suggestions are based on surveys or personal experiences, which suffer from recall bias. I again hope to see more longitudinal data on which strategies influence girls positively (without negatively discouraging boys). I also want to point out that I don’t yet see evidence for the following two strategies. One is to turn everything pink – you probably already know how I feel about that. If someone can do a study to show how pink wires and capacitors actually get girls to be interested in building with electronics more, I am all for it. The other is to introduce over-feminine role models. The “Science, It’s a Girl Thing” video from the European Commission is a prime example of this:

(Because, right, if girls want to study chemistry then they should all be interested in cosmetics, wear heels, and blow kisses)

While I understand the motive for these two strategies, my fear is that we are simply reinforcing existing gender stereotypes. Last year, research by Betz and Sekaquaptewa actually suggested how feminine models could turn young girls away from science. I hope to see more studies such as this to to tease one which strategy works, and which one doesn’t.

5. Last but not the least, we all need to change our attitudes toward success. Being a woman in science can be a double-edge sword: If you are not aggressive and successful, people think that it is your fault and your decision to not stay in science. But if you are ambitious and aggressive, people think that you are not approachable and intimidating and event not good for the job (see Competent Yet Out in The Cold: Shifting Criteria for Hiring Reflect Backlash toward Agentic Women by Phelan et al.). It also looks like we women hesitate to promote either ourselves, or promote other women. Furthermore, some women become “non-feminine” in order to feel they belong in a male dominant field, as suggested by Pronin, Steele, and Ross in their article, Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics.  This recent ad from Pantene, albeit a commercial ad, pretty much sums up the problem.

The consequence is that many of us ended up settling into the stereotype set out for us. Günthera, Ekincib, Schwierenc, and Strobeld found that women tend to hold back when we feel like we won’t win anyways. As suggested by Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender,

One possibility is that…when stereotypes of women become salient, women tend to incorporate those stereotypical traits into their current self-perception. They may then find it harder to imagine themselves as, say, a mechanical engineer.

As women, we need to realize that some of this responsibility does fall on our shoulders, that we should be more supportive of our successful colleagues (and sometimes the difficult decisions they made), and push ourselves further even though there is a risk and we might not win. If we all just sit back and do what is expected of us, the future of women in science will not change for the better.


Here are a few other posts/resources to check out. I am also including a list of research references I used in the post at the very end. There is a podcast based on this series in the plan, so look out for that in the future! 

Research articles referred to in this post

Download the list in pdf format

Bendick M. & Nunes A.P. (2012). Developing the Research Basis for Controlling Bias in Hiring, Journal of Social Issues, 68 (2) 238-262. DOI:

Goldin C. & Rouse C. (2000). Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians, American Economic Review, 90 (4) 715-741. DOI:

Aslund O. & Skans O.N. (2012). Do Anonymous Job Application Procedures Level the Playing Field, Industrial and Labour Relations Review, 65 (1) 82-107. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/ilrreview/vol65/iss1/5/

Rudman L.A., Ashmore R.D. & Gary M.L. (2001). “Unlearning” automatic biases: The malleability of implicit prejudice and stereotypes., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (5) 856-868. DOI:

Betz D.E. & Sekaquaptewa D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (6) 738-746. DOI:

Phelan J.E., Moss-Racusin C.A. & Rudman L.A. (2008). COMPETENT YET OUT IN THE COLD: SHIFTING CRITERIA FOR HIRING REFLECT BACKLASH TOWARD AGENTIC WOMEN, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32 (4) 406-413. DOI:

Pronin E., Steele C.M. & Ross L. (2004). Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40 (2) 152-168. DOI:

Günther C., Ekinci N.A., Schwieren C. & Strobel M. (2010). Women can’t jump?—An experiment on competitive attitudes and stereotype threat, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 75 (3) 395-401. DOI:

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